Not long ago I had a lengthy phone conversation with a writer who was putting together a piece for the NY Post. During our chat he happened to bring up just how difficult it was for him to get a good bottle of wine in a restaurant. My reaction was somewhere between “doooooo!” and “really?” I was surprised given the guy lives in New York, dines out, regularly and knows more than a bit about wine. After a few further questions from my end it quickly became apparent that his comfort level with wine in restaurants simply wasn’t there; that dealing with a sommelier or huge wine list was a major challenge.
He’s not alone. Dealing with what I call “wine ballet” or the “being handed the wine list in front of my friends/colleagues/future ex-spouse” is a source of major stress for practically anyone. I wouldn’t quite put it up there with the fear of public speaking which according to some sources is even greater than the fear of death (must be a tough audience). Being put on the spot with a wine list the size of the Gutenberg Bible can definitely cause personal anxiety. Still the writer didn’t believe me when I told him it was no big deal. So I gave him my own strategy on how to get the best value wine from any given list. Then I promised him I’d share with all my closest friends. Here it is:
There are some things you definitely must know before you darken the restaurant’s door. These would include the following:
a. Know the style of wine you like to drink. Go into a restaurant armed with the knowledge that “I like a red wine with soft tannins, not too much oak and that listens to NPR;” or “I really like big, oaky Chardonnays that remind me of a monster truck pull.”
b. It’s also important to know what you don’t like—arguably even more important than knowing what you do like. Know that you absolutely loathe oaky wines or you break out in hives if the alcohol in a red wine gets to be over 16%, which is not all that uncommon these days.
c. Have a couple of examples of wines you’ve enjoyed in the past that can be used as points of reference. Once you know exactly what you like and don’t like it’s good to have some wines in mind that you’ve tasted in the past that can be used in discussions with a server or a sommelier.
d. Price: know how much you want to spend within $15-$20. Wine prices on restaurant lists can vary dramatically but chances are you already have a good idea of how much you’re willing to spend in future dining excursions.
The Main Event
Now you’re ready to go. You’ve just entered the restaurant with the man/woman of your dreams. When the hostess races you both across the dining room and seats you next to the kitchen while smiling that “adios amigo” smile before racing off leaving the glassware on the table spinning, don’t panic. Keep breathing. Feel good. Feel confident. It’s going to be alright.
1. The Wine List: as you pick up the wine list head to any section and check out the pricing. Spot the highest price you can find and the lowest price as well. Drag those to your mental trash bin and discard.
2. Find the average price: get a quick eyeball average of where most of the wines are priced. That could be anywhere between $40 and $150 depending on your location and the style of the restaurant. After all, there’s a huge difference between a corner bistro and Gary Danko in terms of the cost of operations, infrastructure, and the rest. You might also keep in mind the fact that most restaurants do NOT make money by selling food alone but only manage to survive and hopefully thrive by the selling alcoholic beverages.
3. Find the sweet spot: set your sights on the 50-60% price range of the restaurants’ pricing scheme. That’s usually where the best values are and that, meine liebchen, is your sweet spot.
4. Your server: when your server arrives (hopefully within half hour of your being seated) and asks if you’d like wine with dinner (wrong question), smile and say something like the following:
“You know, this is a really interesting list. I’d like to talk to the sommelier/wine buyer (or whoever gets stuck with doing the wine buying) if they’re available.”
Just kidding on that last one point but you should also know that what you think of as the glorious task of creating a wine list is often relegated to whatever poor soul is the assistant manager, a position that in many instances can only be described as one of the s**t jobs of the universe.
5. The buyer: if the buyer is on the floor, that’s great. Hopefully they will be over in short order. Once said buyer makes a drive by of your table, be sure to relay the above pertinent information to them as in:
a) “This is the style of wine I really like.”
b) “I hate XX kind of wine.”
c) “Here are some wines I’ve enjoyed in the past.”
6. Pricing: give them a price range to work with as in, “I’d like to spend $40-$50,” or “please suggest something great under $75.”
Be specific about your price range but remember that part of their job is to SELL and that means they will probably start in your price range and then suggest something a bit more expensive. Don’t be put off. Listen politely and smile. If their suggestion makes sense in terms of your personal favorite wine style and it’s within your budget consider it. However, if their suggestion is hideously expensive (meaning they either didn’t listen to you or they’re completely clueless), smile again and say:
“You know, that’s really not what I had in mind and I’m sure you probably have something more in our price range. Could you please make a recommendation in the xx price range?”
Likewise, if their suggestion is completely obscure don’t hesitate to ask about the wine. Pacherenc du Vic-Bihl, anyone? Good questions to ask about any recommendation would include the sweetness/dryness level, the amount of oak or the amount of tannin if it’s a red wine recommendation. Ultimately, ask yourself if the recommendation fits your favorite wine profile. If not, don’t hesitate to ask for something closer in style as in with less tannin, oak or cosmetic flaws.
7. Discourse: a bit of back and forth is always good; being mindful of that magic combination of your likes, dislikes, and desired price range should be more than enough for practically anyone to help you get a delicious bottle.
Coda: Magic Questions
If in doubt, ask the following questions or variations therein. You can always feel free to skip everything above and head straight to these:
“What are your favorite VALUES on the list?”
“Is there anything you’ve just gotten in that you really like and think is a must try?”
“Is there anything you’re pouring by the glass that you really like and think is a great value?”
If you’re speaking to the buyer/sommelier chances are they will get dangerously excited at this point or they should be checked for a pulse. This is the moment every sommelier dreams about, the moment when someone is asking their opinion about the coolest wines on the list that they have toiled long hours to put together. What more could they want? Odds are they will blurt out the best/ coolest/ greatest/most amazing wine in nano-seconds of the question leaving your mouth. They may even get all verklempt on you. This is how it should be. If the wine is being poured by the glass by all means ask to taste it. Otherwise, if the price is right give it a spin. And if you really like their recommendation, be sure to let him or her know it and even throw a bit of cash their way. It’s always greatly appreciated. Cheers!